Lutefisk, originally a Scandinavian food tradition that was imported to the United States, is a popular Christmas tradition in the U.S. even more than it is in the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
What Is It?
Literally meaning "lye fish," lutefisk is a dried stockfish (normally cod or ling, but haddock and pollock can also be used) that has been brined in lye, soaked to remove the resulting causticity, and then steamed until it flakes.
It still looks and feels gelatinous. It is typically served with a warm cream or butter sauce and copious amounts of beer or aquavit.
It is called lutefisk or lutfisk (in Norwegian and Swedish); ludefisk (in Danish); and lipeäkala (in Finnish).
How Did It Become a Dish?
Since there was a lack of major salt deposits in the area, in order to store fish, drying seemed the best process for preserving whitefish—a process known for millennia. Stockfish is very nutrient-rich, and you can assume that it was also consumed domestically, although it was during the boom in the stockfish trade in the late Middle Ages, the product became accessible throughout Scandinavia, as well as the rest of Europe.
During the time, historian Olaus Magnus, who lived during the first half of the 1500s and wrote "The History of the Nordic People."
"Above all, the Nordic people eat dry fish such as pike, perch-pike, bream, burbot... When you want to prepare these fish to eat, you put it for two days in strong lye and one day in clean, pure water to make it as soft as you want it. After boiling it with an addition of salty butter, you can put it upon the very tables of princes as a well-liked and delicious dish." —Olaus Magnus
Scandinavian Christmas Tradition
It is believed that lutefisk became a Christmas tradition as a result of the Catholic restriction of meats while fasting during feast periods. Fish and porridge were the substitution foods. And, during the Christmas advent season, dry fish was most available and became the Christmas fish out of circumstance.
New Tradition in North America
Madison, Minnesota has dubbed itself the "Lutefisk Capital of the World" as well as claiming the largest per capita consumption of lutefisk in Minnesota. St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, serves lutefisk during their Christmas festival concerts.
Lutefisk is also consumed in Canada because of its relatively large Scandinavian population, particularly in Western Canada. There are more than one million Canadians with immediate Scandinavian ancestry. Kingman, Alberta proclaims itself on its greeting sign to be the "Lutefisk Capital of Alberta."
The lutefisk tradition in the U.S. has gotten to the point in the U.S., that there is a novelty folksong by American artist Red Strangeland sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum:"
"O lutefisk, O lutefisk, how pungent your aroma
O lutefisk, O lutefisk, you put me in a coma."
Other Parts of the World
Salt cod is similar in concept lutefisk, although, in Scandinavia, the fish isn't salted. It is called baccala in Italian, bacalao in Spanish, bacalhau in Portuguese, morue in French. Salt cod is nothing more than codfish fillets that have been cured in salt and then dried. Another major difference is that the salt cod is not reconstituted in lye.